‘Let kids be dependent in a healthy age-appropriate way and let them progress naturally’
The divisive philosophy, which proposes that children become emotionally attached to caregivers who respond to their needs in a timely, loving manner, has dominated news headlines recently. But proponents say the debate has become muddied by widespread and unfair misconceptions, writes Chris Hunt.
Even before they became parents, Ottawa residents Sneha Madhavan-Reese and her husband John knew how they wanted to parent. They wanted to “babywear,” breastfeed and above all, treat their child with compassion and kindness.
But it wasn’t until after the birth of their first daughter Anasuya four years ago that they discovered they shared many of the tenets of the “attachment parenting” philosophy.
“It was only later, after our daughter was born that we heard the term ‘attachment parenting’ and we found that the AP philosophy fit well with what we were already doing,” says Madhavan-Reese, who runs a local attachment parenting Meetup group.
The “attachment parenting” philosophy has dominated headlines in recent months, fuelled in part by a controversial Time magazine cover featuring a young mother breastfeeding her three-year-old son.
“It was extreme and it was designed to sell magazines,” says Judy Arnall, president and co-founder of Attachment Parenting Canada and best-selling author of Discipline Without Distress. “I think it really did attachment parenting a lot of damage in that it just furthered misconceptions about it.”
Attachment parenting is based on the theory that children become emotionally attached to caregivers who respond to their needs in a timely and loving manner, resulting in stronger bonds between child and parent. The resulting sense of security, many say, allows the child to evolve organically and at his or her own pace.
It’s not without its critics.
Erica Jong of the Wall Street Journal wrote a scathing column in which she claims, “It’s a prison for mothers, and it represents as much of a backlash against women’s freedom as the right-to-life movement.”
French intellectual and feminist Elisabeth Badinter wrote a book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, in which she claims attachment parenting sets feminism back generations by forcing women into the role of stay-at-home-moms, chained to their kids’ every whim.
“Their increased responsibility for babies and young children has proved just as restrictive, if not more so, than sexism in the home or the workplace,” she wrote.
Critics say certain aspects of attachment parenting may be dangerous, and possibly fatal to young children, particularly co-sleeping, which experts say carries a risk of suffocation.
But proponents of attachment parenting say their approach is the victim of popular misconceptions, and that it’s safe and far closer to mainstream parenting than many people think.
“I think that all of those criticisms are looking at particular practices without a sense of balance,” says Madhavan-Reese. “Attachment parenting is about nurturing strong connections, not necessarily particular practices, so each family should choose what things work for them.”
Even in the health care field, attachment parenting is divisive, says Sharon Laplante, a perinatal nurse who agrees with the core ideals.
“I think it promotes proximity, protection of the child, predictability,” she says. “I think it really provides a secure base, and I think all children need that to develop optimally.
“What I don’t agree with is the promotion of it as being a recipe to follow to the letter.”
Mayim Bialik, a neuroscientist and Hollywood actress known for her starring roles in the 1990s hit sitcom Blossom and The Big Bang Theory, recently wrote her first book, Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way. The paperback edition will be published in early September.
“It’s simply current cultural convention to make children as independent, obedient, and ‘good’ as possible as soon as possible,” she wrote in an e-mail to Ottawa Parenting Times.
“Many of us are happy to let kids be dependent in a healthy, age-appropriate way and let them progress naturally, rather than on a timetable.”
However, Laplante stresses the importance of making sure the needs of the entire family aren’t neglected.
“Of course the baby’s needs need to be addressed, but I think to be happy, the whole family’s needs individually, need to be answered or met as well.”
Some of the methods used by attachment parents to meet their children’s needs have sparked much controversy, notably extended breastfeeding, co-sleeping and baby wearing.
Most Canadian health care professionals follow the World Health Organization’s recommendation to “continue frequent, on-demand breastfeeding until two years old or beyond,” yet despite a wealth of research that shows extended breastfeeding offers many health benefits to mother and child, it’s still frowned upon by many.
“Society is not comfortable with breastfeeding, even with little babies, so to breastfeed a four-year-old is really stretching society’s comfort zones,” says Arnall.
Critics of co-sleeping say it’s dangerous for the child, as parents may inadvertently smother them in their sleep.
Arnall admits there can be risks, but adds it’s up to any parent who chooses to co-sleep to make sure the sleeping arrangements are safe.
Parents who are on medication, who smoke or drink in bed should not co-sleep, she says. Placing mattresses on the floor to reduce risks of falling is recommended.
Madhavan-Reese and her husband co-sleep with their youngest, while their four-year-old sleeps on a bed next to them. And the mattresses are on the floor.
In fact, many attachment parenting practices are encouraged by many perinatal nurses.
Laplante says she was surprised when many of her colleagues voiced their displeasure about the cover of Time magazine.
When the magazine hit stands, Laplante says debate between health care professionals became so intense it almost ended in blows.
“It surprised me because we promote breastfeeding, we promote sleeping in the parent’s room, skin-to-skin,” she says.
“That really bothered me, in the sense that we are promoting this, but promoting it for a limited time.”
Laplante says, “I guess it’s probably where attachment theory and parenting theory become incompatible with our western society, where children need to be independent and they need to have specific limits and need to learn to be disappointed.”
Another misconception is that only mothers can be attachment parents. Arnall says attachment parenting is for everybody, from single fathers to working mothers and even same-sex couples.
And it’s certainly not a one-size-fits all parenting method.
“It’s really the underlying values that define attachment parenting and not necessarily those individual parenting choices,” says Madhavan-Reese.
“Not every family that calls themselves an attachment parenting family would co-sleep, for example.”
Meanwhile, Bialik writes, “The misconception is that AP kids are spoiled, clingy, dependent, and have an unrealistic notion of the world because they (supposedly) call all the shots.”
She says attachment parenting is viewed as “permissive parenting, where kids run the house, make all the decisions, and we meekly submit to their desires to heal the wounds from our own messed-up childhoods,” she says.
“In actuality, permissive parenting is a separate approach to parenting and plenty of AP families (like ours) have a lot of structure, boundaries, and formality.”
There is a perceived lack of boundaries because attachment parents discourage sleep training, as it denies a child’s need for emotional comfort throughout the night, and punitive discipline.
“In my experience, punitive discipline doesn’t work,” says Madhavan-Reese.
“I feel that anger and aggression towards children teach children to be angry and aggressive, and it might work in the short term by getting the child to do what you want them to do, but in the long term, it will make the child resentful of the adult and will probably poison the parent and child relationship.”
When her four-year-old misbehaves, Madhavan-Reese redirects her attention in a positive way.
“I do often fall short of the ideal and lose patience and get upset, but I know that’s not the way I want to parent,” she says. “And when that happens I do think of how to perform better next time.”
And that’s fine. Perfection isn’t what attachment parenting is about, says Arnall.
“You’re not going to be a perfect parent, but … if you can meet your child’s needs and your needs at the same time, everybody wins.”